There's been a great deal of controversy surrounding the NFL Network's Top 100 list, the offseason programming idea that wraps up this Sunday with the rankings for the top 10 players overall … or, at the very least, the top 10 players supposedly based on the opinions of the players. That was the somewhat nebulous sell job we all got with the list -- no media claptrap here; this was a for the players/by the players thing, and even if you didn't agree with where this or that player was ranked, you had to respect the fact that a large percentage of the men facing those players put them where they were.
Problem was, several players who were unhappy with their overall rankings didn't stop at complaining — they went so far as to intimate that the players hadn't voted at all. Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Lamarr Woodley, who ranked 82nd, said during a guest spot on the Network's Total Access show that he didn't vote, and he didn't know anyone else who did. Then, there was this bomb from Ross Tucker of SIRIUS NFL Radio:
FYI, Urlacher ranked 49th. Finally, Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb, who ranked 100th (and many people thought he should not have made the list at all), blew it up even further when he was asked about Urlacher's rating on a Chicago radio show. "Brian to me is one of the top three linebackers in the game," McNabb said. "I hate to put numbers behind guys because now you feel like you're slighting them, but when I saw that top 100 list and I see Brian at 49 … first of all, people need to understand that the players did not vote on that."
At this point, the only player who has said he was part of the process is Baltimore Ravens receiver Derrick Mason, in an interview with a Baltimore sports-talk station. Yeah, I was [involved]," Mason said. "I don't think I ranked all 100 players. I think I ranked maybe 20 guys, and that was it because I wasn't sitting down there and ranking 100 guys. I don't even know all 100 guys to sit down and rank them, so I ranked maybe 20 of them. When you look at the rankings and you look at the importance of a player is this: not the type of season that he had, one seasons or two seasons that he had, it's what player do I kick off a team and it changes that team dramatically?"
Mason said that the only two players that met his criteria were Peyton Manning and Ed Reed.
Hmmm. Well, there was only one place to go for further insight. I spoke with NFL Media Director of Communications Dennis Johnson late last week, and he provided me with as much information as he could with the help of Publicity Manager Brenna Webb. The NFL Network insists that the names of the players who did vote remain confidential, but Johnson and Webb told me that "A total of 413 players voted, and each player was asked to list their top 20 current players. Point values (20 for No. 1, 19 for No. 2, etc) were assigned. Total points for each of the players named were added and the cumulative point totals ranked in order to determine the list. NFL Films reached out to players through a variety ways to try to get as many players to participate as possible, and the gathering of votes took place roughly over a five month period, from December to April."
I was told via other sources that some players simply weren't interested in the process — perhaps some of the players who are now complaining after the fact. I understand that in talking to NFL publicity and media folks, I'm getting one side of the story, but I really have to wonder what the NFL's Network's motivation would be in putting up some kind of shell game in which they told their viewers the players were voting when they weren't. It would have been a lot easier to assemble their own 'blue-ribbon' panel [whether the panel was actually 'blue-ribbon' or not] and put up a bunch of arbitrary names. The fact that all involved are admitting that the participation was pretty low says a lot.
My guess is that the NFL Network and NFL Films tried to get a large group opinion together at a time when there was a great deal of uncertainty among the players due to the labor situation, and the response just wasn't what everyone had hoped. Perhaps some players had enough on their minds that they didn't remember being approached about the vote; perhaps NFL Films and the NFL Network could have gone about it another way. But I don't get the motivation to mislead, and to whatever extent this has become a story to some, it's hard to imagine that the voting issue was some sort of conspiracy.